Review: Electronic Arts SimCity
The iPhone and iPod touch continue to evolve as sophisticated gaming platforms, with newer and more powerful games beginning to appear on the App Store now that many ambitious developers have had a chance to fully explore the platform's power. One of the biggest recent ports of a popular desktop game to the iPhone platform is SimCity ($8) by Electronic Arts.
As with many of the higher-end games, SimCity demands a fair bit from your iPhone, and EA makes no secret of this: the first time you run SimCity on your device, it comes out and tells you that you should reset your device for best performance before playing.
SimCity begins by giving you an empty plot of land that you can build into anything from a quiet little hamlet to a sprawling metropolis. To do this, you lay down roads and other forms of transportation, provide city services such as power, water, police, fire, health and education, and then create the appropriate residential, commercial and industrial zones for your citizens to build their homes and businesses in. As in real life, this all has to be done within a budget, and your primary income as a Mayor will come from the taxes that your citizens pay.
Throughout this process, you’re given tools to track various statistics about your city, a panel of advisors in various important areas such as public safety, finance and transportation, and various lobbyists who will come to you from time to time requesting various city services to be provided, ordinances to be passed, or merely advising you of situations where a portion of your population is either happy or displeased with your decisions.
The usual set of ordinances are also available, allowing you to provide general services for your citizens at a small monthly cost such as literacy campaigns or free clinics, or to enact less popular policies that increase your revenue such as parking fines or legalized gambling.
Map overlays and graphs are also available to track your city’s status and to see areas of your city where you may need to focus your attention:
Like its desktop counterpart, however, SimCity continues to be more of an open-ended simulation than a traditional game. Other than trying to maintain a balanced budget, there are no specific goals or objectives other than those you set for yourself: you can choose to build a small village or a bustling metropolis, and can choose to make it an industrial slum or a cultural playground for the rich and famous.
The iPhone version of SimCity also brings along one other fun feature from the desktop version: disasters. Any number of disasters are available to befall your city, ranging from the mundane fires and earthquakes to the esoteric UFO attack. Random disasters can be enabled or disabled in your settings, and you can trigger any specific disaster yourself to test your emergency response, or merely for the sake of sadism.
SimCity goes beyond just being a basic port of the desktop application. In bringing this game to the iPhone, EA made some good design choices to accommodate the iPhone’s touchscreen interface; consequently, even experienced SimCity users will want to walk through the iPhone version’s tutorial to get a feel for how the various interface elements work. Most notably, placing items in your city is a two-stage process: after selecting the item, you first tap the iPhone screen to place an outline of the item on the map, and then tap-and-drag on the appropriate controls to reposition or resize the item as appropriate.
While this may seem a bit cumbersome at first for experienced SimCity players, it helps avoid the frustration that would otherwise occur from inaccurate screen taps by giving you ample opportunity to make sure you’re laying down your infrastructure precisely where you want it to go.
Veteran SimCity players will find the iPhone version of SimCity to be roughly parallel to SimCity 3000 in its general design and features, with only a few limitations. The standard zone types and densities are available, as well as basic transportation such as roads, rail and bus stops, although subways are notably absent. Airports and seaports can be constructed, as appropriate, and the standard selection of power plants is available, although much like the desktop version, the more sophisticated plants only become available later in the game. A wide variety of city service buildings are also present such as police stations, fire stations, schools, hospitals, jails, museums, libraries, parks, marinas and stadiums. Each of these different types of buildings provides services that your citizenry demands while also requiring maintenance costs from your city coffers.
In addition to using your money to actually build things, you must also maintain a balanced budget while funding your various city services such as utilities, police, fire, health and education. Cut back funding in any of these areas, and your workers will go on strike, not only rendering that city service less effective but also creating a negative impact on your city’s general aura.
You can also examine more information about any building in your city by tapping on the query tool and then tapping on the building you would like to query.
The iPhone version of SimCity notably lacks any support for neighbor connections or neighbor deals; placing roads at the map edges has no noticeable effect on demand, and there is no mention of any neighboring cities or neighbor deals. On the other hand, business deals are still available and will be offered to you in situations where you’re running a deficit and your city meets the qualifications. Building an unpopular building such as a casino or toxic waste dump will generate revenue for your city, but create a negative impact on your citizens, particularly those living nearby.
One other significant omission in SimCity on the iPhone is the ability to perform even minor terrain adjustments. Serious players may well be put off by this, since you are pretty much stuck with the terrain that you’re given, with no ability to make even minor modifications, such as raising a small valley so that you can zone properly. This also creates a real impediment to building bridges—a feature that was always tricky even in the desktop versions of SimCity becomes much more difficult when you cannot landscape your shoreline to accommodate a bridge. In fact, on at least one map that we started with, it was not even possible to build a bridge at any point on the map. The absence of terrain adjustment capabilities could be forgiven if more effort was put into the initial terrain generation to avoid these types of obstacles, and hopefully this is something that can be addressed in a future update.
As with most iPhone applications, SimCity will automatically retain your progress in your current city even after you exit the application. However, you can also manually save your city at any time, and even manage multiple save points for the same city or multiple cities.
Despite these limitations, however, SimCity on the iPhone is an impressive app that remains mostly faithful to its desktop counterpart, and impresses us with its level of sophistication. Fans of the desktop SimCity games may be slightly disappointed in a few of the missing features such as subways and neighbor deals, however there’s still much to like in this version. In our opinion the only feature that actually detracts from the game’s overall playability is its lack of even basic terrain-leveling tools, an omission that will hopefully be addressed in some manner in a future update.